People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 13

March 31, 2013





Headley Sentencing: US Double Standards


Yohannan Chemarapally


DAVID Coleman Headley, one of the key conspirators in the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, was sentenced in the last week of January to spend 35 years in prison. He was found guilty on 12 counts by an US District Court in Chicago. The charges upheld against him included a conspiracy to aid militants from the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) who had physically carried out the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008. Headley entered a guilty plea and cooperated with the US authorities in order to escape the death sentence and avoid extradition to India. Headley will be 82 years old when he will be eligible for parole.




On January 16, Tahhawur Rana, a Chicago based businessman and once a friend of Headley, was also sentenced to 14 years in prison by the same Chicago Court. The prosecutors had demanded a 30 year prison term for Headley’s alleged accomplice. Rana, a former Pakistan army man who took Canadian citizenship, was sentenced for providing materiel support for the banned LeT and for participating in an abortive plot against the Danish newspaper in Copenhagen that had printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Jurors had cleared Rana of the most serious charge of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. They accepted Rana’s plea that he was not aware of the conspiracy to launch terror attacks on Mumbai.


The star prosecution witness against Rana was his erstwhile friend, Headley. To avoid the noose, Headley had spent five days on the witness stand revealing details about his contacts with the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan and the LeT. Headley, according to reports in the American media, was also an informer of long standing for the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). In exchange for information, this agency had helped Headley to escape a long jail sentence in California for drug dealing in the nineties. According to reports in the American media, Headley who at the time was known as Daood Saleem Gilani was sent by the DEA to infiltrate Pakistani terror groups having links with drug gangs. Rana’s lawyers had opposed Headley’s plea bargain, pointing out his long term association with intelligence agencies. The American intelligence agencies had not bothered to keep their counterparts in India informed about the activities of Headley. India and the US actively cooperate in intelligence sharing on global terror networks.


Relatives of the 166 victims of the Mumbai attack as well as the Indian government were of the view that Headley deserved a death sentence or at least incarceration for the rest of his life. District Judge Harry Leinenberger, while giving his judgement indicated that he would have preferred the maximum punishment to be given to Headley. The judge pointed out that Headley had previously received two generous plea bargains when he was charged with heroin trafficking in the 1980s and the 1990s. The judge noted that Headley has escaped the death penalty even as the lone survivor of the terrorist squad from Pakistan was hanged last year. Justice Leinenberger observed that the Mumbai assault was so unfathomable and terrifying “that perhaps the lucky ones were those who did not survive.” It was Headley’s meticulous reconnaissance mission to Mumbai that helped the 11 gunmen to inflict maximum damage on hapless civilian populace. While delivering his verdict, the judge also expressed the hope that Headley would be “under lock and key for the rest of his life.”




It was the prosecution that had asked Headley’s cooperation in lieu of a lesser sentence. “We need witnesses. The only way you get witnesses in this world is to threaten them with prosecution and then offer them an incentive to cooperate,” one of the prosecution lawyers had said. Headley’s cooperation so far has not resulted in the nabbing of either his handlers in Pakistan or the ring leaders who masterminded the Mumbai terror attacks.  “The DEA says he was deactivated as an informant in early 2002 after he began training with the Lashkar. Other US agencies say he remained a DEA informant in some capacity until at least 2005. And Indian officials claim that he remained a US agent later than that,” according to Sebastian Rotella of ProPublica, an American public interest news network. Rotella has extensively covered the Headley and Rana trials.  


The US State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, chose to describe the verdict on Headley as a “positive example” of India-US counter-terrorism cooperation. She insisted that the US had kept its promise of “justice being served” and went on to emphasise that Indian investigators were allowed to question Headley. Nuland, however, reiterated the Obama administration’s stand that Headley will not be sent to India for further questioning and a trial. Washington claims that American laws do not permit repatriation of condemned prisoners.


The Indian government had said after the verdict was out that it is still continuing to press for the extradition of Headley. The Indian external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, said that New Delhi was “a little disappointed” with the verdict as “we wanted him (Headley) to be tried here in India.” While assuring Washington about his government’s faith in the American judicial system, he said that a trial in India would have ensured a “harsher punishment” for Headley. Opposition parties have demanded that the government take a tougher stand with the Obama administration and not give up on the demands for the repatriation of Headley to face justice on Indian soil. Repatriation, according legal experts, is now out of question.


However, under the terms of the “plea bargain,” Headley will be available for questioning by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) in the presence of officials from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) if further investigations are needed in connection with the Mumbai terror attacks. The FBI was no doubt aware about Headley’s clandestine activities before and after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Headley was after all a DEA agent of long standing who had extensive contacts with the LeT and its handlers. Immediately after the Mumbai attacks, there were reports in the Indian media that US Intelligence had given prior warnings to their Indian counterparts of an impending sea-borne terror attack on the country’s financial attack. Either Headley or some other source from Pakistan could have provided that information to the US agencies.




The Indian government had originally insisted that Headley had to face trial in an Indian court as it was conclusively proven that he had played a key role in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. An extradition treaty exists between the two countries and, given the close relations that exist between the two countries these days, the US could have dispatched Headley to face trial in India. In Headley’s case, the Indian government has not shown the kind of eagerness to mete out justice as it did in the case of Afzal Guru. Many legal luminaries have argued that there was more compelling evidence against Headley than against Afzal Guru. The Indian government did not legally oppose the “plea bargain” for Headley that the US law officials had put up before the Chicago court.


The American government would not have tolerated a citizen from a third country to get away if a crime of similar magnitude was committed on its soil. Forced renditions of foreign citizens to the US, even on the mere suspicion of being involved in terrorist acts, has become a common practice since Washington started its global “war on terror.” Many of them still languish in the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison without trial. Many of the people who were renditioned and tortured in third countries by the US government were later found to be innocent.


While people like Headley get a “fair trial” in American courts, the Obama administration metes out its own brand of justice to others. Suspected “terrorists,” some of them American citizens, are subjected to targeted killings in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. More than 2300 people have been killed in Pakistan alone. Now the extra-judicial assassinations are spreading to other parts of the world. According to reports, the CIA is now planning to deploy killer drones in northwest Africa. The Obama administration is claiming that the host governments have given permission for carrying out the “lethal operations.” But the US Justice Department stated that the government has the right to act unilaterally if any government is “unable or unwilling to suppress the threat posed.” To mollify critics, the Obama administration is now thinking of setting up a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, created by the US Congress. Such a court would have to justify “targeted killings” of terror suspects to a federal judge.